West Alabama Offers Shrimp Surprise
When you think of good wholesome shrimp, you think of the beach. You think of pricey restaurants where your meal is $20 plus or fresh markets where you can buy a pound for $12.
But if you live in West Alabama, you might just think about ponds full of shrimp and Dickie Odom.
West Alabama is home to two salt-water aquifers that make production of shrimp far from the ocean possible. Though not nearly as salty as the ocean, the fresh water in parts of Greene County is contaminated by salt water, making it perfect for an experiment first started as a project of Auburn University’s fisheries department.
Dickie Odom took the bait and jumped in to see what could happen at his ponds in 1999 when Auburn began its first crop of shrimp in Odom’s backyard.
Odom calls Washington County his home, though he currently resides in Greene County off of Highway 43. He attended Livingston University, now known as the University of West Alabama, until he was drafted and joined the National Guard. Odom was running a Chevrolet dealership when his father called and asked him to come home and help with the catfish ponds he had started.
Now, as one of three people who harvest inland shrimp in Alabama, Odom’s business has grown so much that he has more customers than shrimp.
Odom drives to Islamorada, Fla., each spring to bring the three million post larvae White Pacific shrimp, or “PL’s”, which will become his crop. It’s a 20-hour drive, with stops every four hours to feed the shrimp. The shrimp are transported in water chilled to 65 degrees to make the shrimp lethargic so that they don’t end up eating each other.
Back in Alabama, the shrimp are placed into two enormous tanks in Odom’s greenhouse until they are ready to enter the ponds.
At first, the question was how the shrimp could survive in a lower salinity than the ocean. Ocean salinity is 35 parts per thousand (ppt), but shrimp were successfully being farmed at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Baldwin County at 25 ppt and doing quite well.
But the West Alabama ponds required adapting shrimp used to 35 ppt to 4 ppt in an extensive and careful process.
When the shrimp first arrive, the water in the tanks needs to be as close to 35 ppt as possible. The biggest issue is temperature. If the shrimp undergo a temperature change of more than one degree Celsius they will go into shock, so Odom pours 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of ice in his tanks to chill the water.
The next day, Odom starts introducing his pond water to the baby shrimp. By May, he has acclimated his shrimp to salinity as low as 3.5 ppt, and his crop is ready to enter the ponds.
After 150 days, the shrimp are ready to be harvested, and that’s when the masses come.
Odom’s shrimp are a real hit not only in West Alabama but also throughout the state and even Mississippi. He loves eating his own shrimp because it’s his business, and it’s just good shrimp. “I have a responsibility to make sure the shrimp tastes right,” he says.
The last weekend in September is harvest time, and people come from all over to watch him haul shrimp out of his seven ponds. He typically harvests 1,500 pounds of shrimp from a one-acre pond. That’s 10 shrimp to a pound, sold “head-on.” In total, a good harvest is looking like 50,000 pounds of shrimp, but Odom says he needs to double that to meet demand.
Even with no advertising, hundreds of people come for the harvest; so many that Odom doesn’t have enough shrimp to sell. He doesn’t like that. “My fear is that [customers] drive 50 miles, a 100 miles, and I don’t have shrimp.”
Odom doesn’t even sell to restaurants or grocery stores, and he still struggles to harvest enough shrimp to meet demand. “We sell our [shrimp] direct to the customer,” Odom says. “We built this business selling direct to the public and that’s how it’s gonna be.”
At $4 a pound, buying shrimp from Odom is significantly cheaper (and better) than shrimp you can buy at the beach or from your local grocery store. Alabamians know that, and they’ll wait all day to fill their cooler with shrimp.
Even in early summer, before the shrimp have made it to the ponds, Odom receives two or three calls a week asking about his shrimp. Newspapers and TV stations have come as well, as fascinated with the idea of shrimp ponds as the customers. “It seems like every year I have someone over here writing a story,” Odom says.
What makes it all so incredible is that Odom does this all on his own. He calls for help during the harvest season, but for the rest of the year it’s a one-man job. “Everything I do here, I do it myself. Big is not always better.”
If the crowds who show up to buy his shrimp are any indicator, he’s right. Odom is a testament to the success innovative farming can have in rural America. It may be difficult, and Odom won’t deny that he had a rocky start, but he enjoys it. And so do his customers.
For more information on Alabama’s inland shrimp farming industry, visit: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1302.